Poetry Late-Thursday-Night: On High

h1 December 3rd, 2009 by jules

Spread from Julia Durango’s Angels Watching Over Me, illustrated by
Elisa Kleven; Simon & Schuster, 2007

I’m going to keep it simple this Poetry Friday with a brief excerpt from, of all the things, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” a poem and Christmas carol written mid-nineteenth-century by Edmund Sears, pastor of a Unitarian Church in Weston, Massachusetts.

I’ve been listening to some holiday tunes lately, as perhaps many of you are. As one of 7-Imp’s esteemed readers—who regularly runs after his hat “with the manliest ardour and the most sacred joy”—told me in an off-blog conversation, “Christmas music seems pretty much unambiguously glorious to me. It’s like good songwriters and hymnalists lose all the artifice and bombast and sentimentality they’re prone to the rest of the year.” To that, I say—rather uneloquently—word. He nailed it.

One particular version of “Midnight Clear” I’ve been listening to is so stark and spare and beautiful in its simplicity that I’ve been doing double-takes on the lyrics every time I hear it. I’m including the second and fourth verses below. They get me every time. Those lyrics are perfectly exquisite. “Still through the cloven skies they come / With peaceful wings unfurled”: Case-in-point.

Those lyrics have also put those magical, mystical, spiritual messengers we call angels on my mind all week. These winged beings of light have always rather fascinated me in mythology and story. What has helped keep them on my mind for days now is that my four-year-old keeps pulling angel ornaments off our tree to play with and marvel over and ask me about.

Another thing about these lyrics: I think I consistently do a pretty good job in life with gratitude, with remembering that, compared to the balance of the rest of the world, I live well. Quite well. There’s something about the holidays for many of us that bring to mind those that don’t have it so easy, who suffer in one way or another and on levels physical, emotional, economical, and much more. I find myself thinking, as I listen to those evocative lyrics in the fourth verse of the song, the second verse listed below, that those words can be balm for those who agonize or ache in any way. That would be my hope. That’s what I’d tell them anyway.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Song of the Angels, 1881

p.s. I’ve never found an angel quote, for lack of a better phrase, better than G.K. Chesteron’s: “The reason angels can fly is that they take themselves so lightly.”

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The classiest lady in the blogosphere, Elaine Magliaro, has tomorrow’s Poetry Friday round-up.

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Spread at the top of the post is used with permission of Elisa Kleven. Song of the Angels is in the public domain.

9 comments to “Poetry Late-Thursday-Night: On High”

  1. Lovely selection.

    I’d never read the Chesterton quote before, but it makes me think of a passage from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

    The first time an angel heard the devil’s laughter, he was dumbfounded. That happened at a feast in a crowded room, where the devil’s laughter, which is terribly contagious, spread from one person to another. The angel clearly understood that such laughter was directed aginst God and against the dignity of His works. He knew he must react swiftly somehow, but felt weak and defenseless. Unable to come up with anything of his own, he aped his adversary. Opening his mouth, he emitted broken, spasmodic sounds in the higher reaches of his vocal range[…], but giving them an opposite meaning: whereas the devil’s laughter denoted the absurdity of things, the angel on the contrary meant to rejoice over how well ordered, wisely conceived, good and meaningful everything here below was.

    Ha! (You can choose for yourself what kind of laugh that was. :))

  2. OK now you have me bawling. In a good way. Lordy I am feeling weary and in need of some peaceful wings unfurled!! Let me just set down this burden and listen a minute…

  3. “Midnight Clear” is one of my fave carols. Love the verses you’ve posted here and the gorgeous paintings. Music is such a great balm and healer.

  4. Beautiful, beautiful post, Jules. Thank you. I know you are referring to Sam’s version of Midnight Clear, and I must admit, it wasn’t until hearing her sing that song that I really listened to the words for the first time. I think the true meaning of the holidays comes pouring out in the songs of the season, and when we stop and really listen, there is healing.

  5. Oh this is fine fine fine. Thank you. Happy peaceful comforting holidays to you, Ms. Jules…

  6. I’m a goshawful singer. But Christmas carols are hugely forgiving. When I stand and sing words like “And still their heavenly music floats/O’er all the weary world,” it’s like an electric charge of joy and hope.

    I love your angel quote, and JES’s too.

  7. This is one of my favorite angel quotes:

    We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another. ~Lucretius

    Bouguereau’s painting is gorgeous, thanks for sharing it. I realized that I have a Bourguereau print on my angel wall–“L’Amour et Psyché, enfants” and didn’t even know who the artist was–now I do! (I have a small collection of angels.)

  8. I was hoping to use the illustration of The angels flying by Elisa Kleven in my book of poetry.
    Do I need permission to use this image?

  9. Yes, Phil. I’m sure you would. Elisa Kleven’s web site (http://www.elisakleven.com/) has her contact info.

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